Ridiculous, I suppose, to feel protective of the Tony Awards. Despite my ongoing mixed emotions about competition in the arts, however, I can’t ignore a little sting of concern.
You see, the producers of the magnificent hot-ticket revival of “Sunday in the Park With George,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal, have decided to opt out of contention for the June 11 awards, explaining that its “extremely limited” engagement — just 10 weeks — is a “special run.”
In a statement last month, the producers praised “a season so full of tremendous, soon-to-be long-running musicals and revivals,” but said their show “stands most appropriately outside of any awards competition.”
If this decision is not unprecedented, it is extremely rare. Yes, the production is expanded from a brief, semi-staged fundraising event for City Center Encores! last fall and the transfer came together with unusual speed. But there is nothing casual about the elaborate results, nothing that suggests this revival of the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine masterwork should stand outside the contest.
Given, Gyllenhaal, who is a revelation, doesn’t need a Tony to boost his career. Understandably, I guess, the producers, who hardly need Tony nominations to boost the box office, may welcome getting off the hook for almost 1,600 free tickets to Tony voters and their dates.
But what about the rest of the cast and the creative team? What about new director Sarna Lapine, who managed not to make a carbon copy of (her uncle) James Lapine’s original staging? Wouldn’t Annaleigh Ashford, his equally wondrous co-star, like to have a best-actress in a musical Tony to put next to her 2015 featured-actress Tony from the revival of “You Can’t Take It With You?” And how about acknowledgment of Ken Billington’s ingenious light show?
Beyond sympathy for the opted-out talent, however, I worry about precedent. When producers of other star-driven limited engagements see how well “Sunday” stands “outside” the Tonys, won’t some of them — especially ones with closing dates before the April 27 season cutoff — see an advantage in aligning with claims of “special” runs?
Short runs for musicals are unusual, although this season is an exception with three. This includes “Sunset Boulevard,” starring Glenn Close, who is not eligible for a deserved Tony nod because she won one for the original production in 1995. But the rest of the revival, originally set to close May 28 but now extended through June, are contenders. The other is the Lincoln Center Theater’s wonderful revival of “Falsettos,” always limited to 16 weeks because of cast commitments. When asked about the temptations of opting out, Andre Bishop, producing artistic director of the theater, exclaimed, “We never considered not having it be Tony eligible, despite the on-purpose run.”
Far more common, however, and potentially more of a threat to the glow of the Tonys, are the plays, which burst onto Broadway with movie stars for high-profile brief visits and clean up at the box office.
For example, if the producers of Broadway’s most recent “Fences” had decided that, with just a 13-week run, they may as well thrive outside the system, there would have been no 2010 Tonys for revival, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. If producers of Nora Ephron’s “Lucky Guy” had decided not to compete, they probably still would have grossed $22.9 million, according to Reuters, for a 13-week run. But Tom Hanks wouldn’t have a Tony nomination for his Broadway debut.
Now that “Sunday in the Park” is doing spectacularly well without playing by Tony rules, how long before other producers and stars decide they’re too cool to be bothered? Won’t the awards themselves be diminished?
The presidents of the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, co-producers of the Tonys, declined to be interviewed on the subject. But a representative for the Tony Awards Productions said, “We can’t speculate about what producers may do. At this point, it is not a trend. This is a unique situation.”
Bishop is more upbeat. “The Tony Awards are great honors,” he reassured me. “Virtually everybody who works in the theater believes in and loves and is happy about them. I don’t think this sets any kind of precedent at all.” Still, I worry.
WHILE WE’RE TALKING BROADWAY
For the first time in its five-year existence, TEDxBroadway is going to ask a single-theme question: “What’s the best Broadway can be?”
TEDx is a self-organized event under the general guidance of the influential international talk-fests called TED conferences. The sixth annual theater confab will be held March 21 at the New World Stages and gather speakers from traditional and unlikely fields. In addition to Tina Landau, innovative nonprofit director now staging “The SpongeBob Musical” and Alton Fitzgerald White, who performed King Mufasa in “The Lion King” more than anyone on Broadway, the day includes speakers are pulled from many different fields, among them social workers, medical experts and Rachelle Pereira, co-founder of a firm “dedicated to nurturing and building powerful modern leaders.”
Tickets for the day are $100. For more information, visit tedxbroadway.com
GETTING THE JUMP ON ‘INDECENT’
“Indecent,” Paula Vogel’s powerful play-with-music about the controversial 1923 Broadway premiere of a seminal Yiddish drama, begins previews on Broadway April 4 after an Off-Broadway success. The unusual and moving piece requires absolutely no homework. But theatergoers who want to know a little more and get a head start can see that actual drama, Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St., March 14 through 26. The New Yiddish Rep production will be performed in Yiddish with English supertitles. For information, visit newyiddishrep.org